On Friday, January 1, 1864 extreme cold swept throughout much of the American North and South, bringing extensive ice and snow and dropping temperatures below zero as far south as Memphis, Tennessee.
Such an extremity of weather caused enormous suffering to both the Federals and the Confederates, with the average soldier desiring only adequate shelter and warmth. Harsh conditions posed communication and supply chain problems which made large scale maneuvering extremely difficult.
New Year’s Day, 1864 dawned with the future more clearly defined. Hope increased in the American North, while it decreased throughout the South. Union triumphs at Vicksburg, Gettysburg, and Chattanooga had effectively held in check the Southern effort at independence.
On the last day of 1863 a minor skirmish in Searcy, Arkansas was the only recorded fighting. The Union First Arkansas Cavalry conducted a reconnaissance into Searcy County, a prewar, Unionist stronghold where there was little support for slavery.
In mid-December 1863 while at the mouth of the Rio Grande River, Captain John Gillis of the USS Ossipee requested instructions on whether he should seize ships bearing legal documentation which were headed for Matamoras, Mexico, if he believed that they bore goods which would later be shipped into Confederate Texas.
On Tuesday, December 29, 1863 there occurred a skirmish on Matagorda Peninsula, Texas which was typical of many minor, Civil War engagements. A force of approximately 100 Union infantry landed, hoping to capture Confederate sentries who guarded the peninsula and to confiscate cattle to supply Union forces in South Texas.
Nearby Confederate cavalry responded, attacking the Union force which the Confederates later declared to be “about 300 strong.” Approximately 800 Confederates attacked, although Union reports alleged enemy cavalry at “1200 to 1500 strong.”
On Monday, December 28, 1863 the Confederate Congress abolished all substitution for military service. In April 1862 the Confederate Congress, at the urging of President Jefferson Davis, had passed an act drafting for three years military duty all white males between the ages of eighteen and thirty-eight, but all eligible for the draft who could secure an acceptable substitute did not have to serve.
December 25, 1863, the third Christmas Day of the Civil War in America. In a report Union Naval Commander James Strong noted that he arrived at the mouth of the Rio Grande River aboard the USS Monongahela on Christmas Day, 1863 to discover some 60 vessels anchored in nearby Mexican waters.
He noted that most of the ships were there to land goods in Mexico for the Confederacy. The goods would be transported by land across the Rio Grande above the area occupied by Union troops and turned over to Texan, Confederate authorities.
During the winter months it was often too cold to effectively launch any large scale, offensive action against the enemy. Such was the case in the last week of December 1863. While the major fronts in Virginia and Georgia remained quiet, skirmishing did occur throughout most states of the South.
By the end of 1863 it was obvious that Jefferson Davis’ policy of withholding all sales of Southern cotton to Europe was a failure. This policy of “King Cotton Diplomacy” was designed to force the European nations—particularly England and France—to intervene in the American Civil War in order to procure Southern cotton.
However, Europe had seen in the late 1850’s the deteriorating relations within the American nation, and England and France had wisely purchased a year’s worth of surplus Southern cotton from the 1859 and 1860, bumper crops.
Given the prior, strained relations between the citizens of New Orleans and former Union General Benjamin Butler, it was no surprise to either General Nathaniel Banks, the current commander of the Union Department of the Gulf, or to President Abraham Lincoln that the civilian authorities in Louisiana, and in particular those in charge at New Orleans, were often less than supportive of the continuing Union occupation of both Louisiana’s urban and rural areas.